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Bumpy airplane ride? Blame climate change

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

If it seems like your airplane crew when you fly is warning you of turbulence more often these days and turning on the fasten-seat-belt light, you might be on to something. Research is showing that a warming climate is contributing to bumpier skies. Here to talk about that is NPR's Scott Neuman. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha. Glad to be here.

RASCOE: So, Scott, I had never heard of this research linking turbulence to climate change, but apparently, I guess it goes back a decade or so. Like, what made you start looking into this?

NEUMAN: Well, some pretty extreme events aboard commercial flights recently have been hitting the news and highlighting the issue. Probably some of our listeners have seen photos from a Lufthansa flight last month from Austin, Texas, to Frankfurt, Germany. It experienced significant turbulence. So there are food trays, pillows and other items strewn about the cabin. But more importantly, several people were injured on that flight, and the plane was forced to divert to Washington Dulles.

Ingrid Weisse was aboard another flight last month from Portland to Honolulu. Although it didn't get much media attention, Weisse's flight also experienced an extended patch of pretty severe turbulence. She was flying with her husband and two young sons. The family lives in Hawaii, and they're pretty experienced fliers, but she told me that it was nothing like they'd ever seen.

INGRID WEISSE: Yeah, it was, like, an hour straight of turbulence. And the last 20 to 30 minutes, many people were screaming. Like, so many people vomited that after the turbulence stopped, they had to run out and, like, pass out more vomit bags.

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness. So what does research say about all this? Like, why is turbulence getting worse for airline passengers, and what does it have to do with climate?

NEUMAN: First off, we should probably clarify a few things. What's happening here is really an increase in wind shear. That's a sudden change in the speed or direction of the wind. And that in turn is triggering more turbulence, specifically a type known as clear-air turbulence. Like the name implies, clear-air turbulence isn't caused by bad weather. It happens in clear air above the clouds. That can make it virtually impossible for pilots to see ahead of time.

The other thing to note is that while the incidents we just discussed might have happened anyway, the warming climate is making them more likely. Paul Williams is a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in England. He's a leading researcher on the topic. He says that looking at satellite data since 1979 shows a 15% increase in wind shear. And he attributes that to climate change. And Williams and his colleagues say there could be as much as a tripling of wind shear in the next 30 to 60 years.

RASCOE: Is there anything technologywise that can be done to avoid clear-air turbulence?

NEUMAN: Well, there's an app for it - a cockpit-mounted iPad or tablet that senses vibration can make automatic real-time reports allowing pilots to see where the turbulence is. But that's not foolproof. It relies on other planes first going through the turbulence in order to send a report. And of course, not every pilot uses the app. Beyond that, there's really not much that pilots and co-pilots can do other than to make changes once they experience turbulence. Changing altitude is a common tactic, as is slowing down the plane.

RASCOE: So, you know, what should passengers do to stay safe?

NEUMAN: Well, that's easy. It's just like they say during the safety briefing - stay buckled up while seated, even if the fasten-seat-belt sign isn't on.

RASCOE: OK. So that means it's much more important to actually follow instructions. That's NPR's Scott Neuman. Thank you so much for joining us.

NEUMAN: Thank you, Ayesha. It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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